How To Get Away With Teaching The Controversy

The following is an abstract from an article by Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education called “WHAT’S WRONG WITH THE “TEACH THE CONTROVERSY” SLOGAN?” available here.

a repost

Teachers are often exhorted by creationists to “teach the controversy.” Although such encouragement sounds on the surface like a proposal for critical thinking instruction, the history of the creationist movement in North America belies this claim. Rather than teach students to analyze and evaluate actual scientific controversies, the intent of “teach the controversy” exhortations is to have teachers instruct students that evolution is weak or unsubstantiated science that students should not take seriously. Such instruction in alleged “evidence against evolution,” or “critical analysis of evolution” would seriously mis-educate students, and should be resisted by teachers and administrators.

It does not take much to insert “the controversy” into a public school biology classroom. Here are some ideas as to how to do this:

1) Don’t mention anything about “the controversy” unless it is raised by a student. Most likely it will be since a fair percentage of the students are primed to bring this issue up. They are primed by parents, preachers, and so on. When the student brings up “the controversy” the creationist biology teacher is presented with at “teachable moment” ripe for exploitaiton.

2) If you follow strategy (1), it is possible that the opportunity to teach “the controversy” will be lost now and then. It is possible that an entire semester can go by without any student really bringing the issue up. Strategy (2) is to start, supervise, or otherwise get involved with a legal extra-curricular Christian group. The very fact that a biology teacher is the faculty supervisor of such a group may be enough to cause a greater number of students to make the connection. But the effect can be virtually guaranteed by bringing creationism (even in the absence of discussion of evolution itself) into the discussion by using Genesis as a discussion template during the first couple of meetings of the group in a given semester or academic year.

3) A teacher can probably get away with (but this is probably not legal) mentioning their own religion along with other facts about themselves during on the first or second day of class during “introductions” or some other “get to know you/me” activity at the beginning of a semester.

Would these activities be considered illegal, or should they be discouraged or made against the rules by a school administration? Is it appropriate to simply not hire teachers who are creationists in order to avoid this problem to begin with?

Should school administrators be on the lookout for teachers using these strategies? if so, how?

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0 thoughts on “How To Get Away With Teaching The Controversy

  1. Grrrr, I realize this is irony, but I still get aggravated. What’s wrong with teaching the controversy? Why spend valuable science class time on cultural and religious issues when you could be learning really cool scientific stuff? Save the “controversy” for social science or cultural studies.

  2. It seems to me a more effective way to “teach the controversy” would be, when that teachable moment arrives, to mention how fundamentalist Christian groups are trying to insert religion into science classes and why that is wrong. Then a brief discussion on why evolution is true followed by a few examples. One needn’t mention creationism or its arguments.

    But then, I am not an educator. Perhaps I am wrong.

  3. Maybe the best way to teach the controversy is to ask for evidence for any controversial claims, and then deftly argue against that. It may even stop the moment you ask for a testable hypothesis, which is the hallmark of the scientific method, and would give you a lead-in for a better topic.

  4. @BruceH

    Unfortunately, the moment someone writes a template of what a biology teacher can reasonably explain in a few minutes, creationists will shift strategies to priming vulnerable students with questions designed to suggest plausible loopholes in the explanation – loopholes that preferably take substantial amounts of time and research to refute to a layman. Indeed this is already often done.

    This isn’t a battle we can win in the classrooms and minds of students, which is precisely why creationists want to fight it there. The strengths of science lie in the chain of argument from evidence, the bulk of which cannot be easily explained to the layman, so the battle must be contained to curriculum development where planners can understand the relevant issues.

    In any case I think Laden was discussing how creationist teachers may subvert existing curricular restrictions. I venture that this is less of a problem than it might initially seem, since the level of self-control needed to absorb classroom creationism and still be able to write non-insane answers to high school biology standardized tests is extraordinarily rare. A few teachers may be able to do so, but their students will give them away the moment test results are returned, which will immediately allow school administrators to identify and legitimately challenge those responsible for incompetence in teaching.

  5. michele: “Why spend valuable science class time on cultural and religious issues when you could be learning really cool scientific stuff?”

    I’ve been asking myself the same question since my daughter started school this year (after homeschooling). I’ve been on the look-out for back-door evangelism (taught in local churches); instead – so far – my daughter has only been exposed to a whole lot of woo. Her science teacher talks a lot about her collection of lucky rocks shaped like hearts; “every time she finds a new one her luck goes way up!” (My daughter is actually horrified that her science teacher believes in lucky rocks, since “she should know better.”) And, her english teacher is obsessed with ghosts and uses ghost stories for examples of everything. The teacher’s “life’s dream” is to be on Ghost Hunters… So, every minute spent on this stuff is time that could have been spent learning something real. It’s frustrating. For me – and, more importantly, for kids like my daughter.

  6. Lynn, the rule is if you see Rod Serling outside the school, don’t drop the kids off. 🙂

    More seriously, by a stretch of imagination I could see a teacher using kids fascination with ghosts to teach literature. You could teach Poe, Stevenson (Maybe), Dickens, Shakespeare and there have got to be some modern authors that use ghosts as a device. Unfortunately there are the unfortunate teachers who mistake their class for a fan club and use the opportunity to go on about pet subjects unrelated to their subject.

    Lucky Rocks? That is such a missed opportunity. Think of all the ways to teach science through a rock collection. You could bring in interesting rocks you’ve collected from trips around the country and talk about geological features or formations, fossils, etc.

  7. The controversy over biology may sometimes stem from misunderstanding of molecular biochemistry. The facts of presently existing materials are known mathematically through equations. One logical method of analysis is the curricular set of quantum and relativistic physics functions defining waves, atoms, molecules, and material phases. Falling behind in that example modeling art is gradually erosive of the science of biology, which is advancing through nanoscale research by the atomic topological wavefunction for analysis of molecular states and reactions.
    Recent advancements in quantum science have produced the picoyoctometric, 3D, interactive video atomic model imaging function, in terms of chronons and spacons for exact, quantized, relativistic animation. This format returns clear numerical data for a full spectrum of variables. The atom’s RQT (relative quantum topological) data point imaging function is built by combination of the relativistic Einstein-Lorenz transform functions for time, mass, and energy with the workon quantized electromagnetic wave equations for frequency and wavelength.

    The atom labeled psi (Z) pulsates at the frequency {Nhu=e/h} by cycles of {e=m(c^2)} transformation of nuclear surface mass to forcons with joule values, followed by nuclear force absorption. This radiation process is limited only by spacetime boundaries of {Gravity-Time}, where gravity is the force binding space to psi, forming the GT integral atomic wavefunction. The expression is defined as the series expansion differential of nuclear output rates with quantum symmetry numbers assigned along the progression to give topology to the solutions.

    Next, the correlation function for the manifold of internal heat capacity energy particle 3D functions is extracted by rearranging the total internal momentum function to the photon gain rule and integrating it for GT limits. This produces a series of 26 topological waveparticle functions of the five classes; {+Positron, Workon, Thermon, -Electromagneton, Magnemedon}, each the 3D data image of a type of energy intermedon of the 5/2 kT J internal energy cloud, accounting for all of them.

    Those 26 energy data values intersect the sizes of the fundamental physical constants: h, h-bar, delta, nuclear magneton, beta magneton, k (series). They quantize nuclear dynamics by acting as fulcrum particles. The result is the picoyoctometric, 3D, interactive video atomic model data point imaging function, responsive to keyboard input of virtual photon gain events by relativistic, quantized shifts of electron, force, and energy field states and positions.

    Images of the h-bar magnetic energy waveparticle of ~175 picoyoctometers are available online at with the complete RQT atomic modeling manual titled The Crystalon Door, copyright TXu1-266-788. TCD conforms to the unopposed motion of disclosure in U.S. District (NM) Court of 04/02/2001 titled The Solution to the Equation of Schrodinger.

  8. Dale, you crack me up!

    I think we can indeed teach the controversy. Take the first introductory hour and and dedicate it to philosophical issues or “pre-scientific ideas”. Mention them. Explain why they are unscientific. For the rest of the semester, whenever someone brings up some objection, refer them to this discussion.

  9. Why not dare to teach the actual controversies in evolution! Punctuated equilibrium, group selection, selectively neutral variations, etc. Then explain how science resolves controversies, with attention to different predictions and laborious collection and data analysis. If someone brings up creationism or ID, explain how they could be scientific, but their predictions are either empty or absurd, and their labor on data collection is nil.

    After all the essence of science is its method, not its dogmatic adherence to a catalog of truths. Any so-called “science curriculum” that doesn’t teach the method isn’t science, it’s “scientific religion”. And any biologists who can’t explain the principle of evolution in terms a fifth-grader can understand don’t understand it themselves.

  10. It is not about not daring. Biology is a huge subject with lots of ground to cover. I am sure you can teach the actual controversies in Punctuated Equilibrium and all that when you get to it. That is the key thing: when you get to it. Some of these are sophisticated topics that require some philosophical/mathematical maturity, which means learning and unlearning things learnt naively. For the beginning student who thinks creationism is a challenge to science, he or she needs to learn some basic epistemology and philosophy, and unlearn a lot of wrong ideas. So it is a question if he is well prepared for it to learn, of his knowledge of his own mental processes of reasoning.

    It is one thing to be able to explain the idea of evolution, but maturity of ideas cannot be taught, so you really don’t know how the student grasps the point, if he is introspective enough to detect inconsistencies between what he has learnt and what passes for “knowledge” in the vernacular.

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